Grocery Diaries

How a Journalist and Her Husband Follow the Keto Diet on $150 a Week in the D.C. Metro Area

published Mar 12, 2020
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Credit: Photos: Shutterstock; JELL-O Cups: Kraft Heinz; Design: The Kitchn

Name: Jean
Location: Vienna, VA (Washington, DC metro area)
Age: 28
Number of people in household: 2 adults (me and my husband Andy, 29)
Occupation: I’m a journalist; my husband is an insurance underwriter.
Household income: $128,000/year combined
Weekly grocery budget: $150
Grocery store of choice: Aldi, H-Mart ,Target, Giant, Amazon Fresh, Wegmans

Day 1: Monday 

Breakfast: I wake up around 6:30 a.m after pressing snooze twice We are a bit out of sorts having just returned home from Philadelphia last night where we were for my husband’s grandmother’s funeral. We usually grocery shop on Sundays, but I have to go tonight. 

I follow the Ketogenic diet for medical reasons (including insulin resistance and polycystic ovarian syndrome), and most of the time my husband Andy does it with me. Since Andy hasn’t been instructed by a doctor to cut his carbs, he eats them when it’s more convenient or when he wants some chocolate. 

I also practice intermittent fasting and never eat breakfast, but my husband microwaves a frozen Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich which we keep for mornings like this one where we don’t have anything else to work with. I make a solid 20 ounces of coffee with my Aeropress (I love it so much) to bring with me to work. We both make it out the door semi-on time. 

Lunch: Since we couldn’t meal plan or grocery shop on Sunday, I’m stuck with my work cafeteria for lunch, while Andy takes leftover pizza he brought home from a meal we had in Philly at his parents’ house. I buy my go-to lunch from our cafeteria: A bun-less bacon cheeseburger with a side salad from the salad bar. Sometimes I cut up the burger and bacon and toss it in with the salad (which, to keep things on a keto ratio, is around one cup of mixed greens, a generous handful of shredded cheddar and ranch dressing). I spend $8.12 on lunch and eat at my desk while I meal plan for the remainder of the week. 

Credit: Food Photos: Shutterstock; Design: The Kitchn

Aldi run: I stop by Aldi after work to get what I can and task Andy with hitting up the Wegmans near his office to get the two name brand products we need this week: Sugar-Free Jell-O and Banquet sausage. We do most of our shopping at Aldi and then supplement what we can’t get there from Wegmans and H Mart. One of our biggest budgeting hurdles since going keto has been the amount of meat we eat. Vegetarian meals that fit the diet are rarely satisfying for us, so we stick to the basics as much as possible, but vary the recipes. Aldi has been a big part of keeping our budget under control. 

Credit: Food Photo: Shutterstock; Design: The Kitchn

I get a pretty big haul to carry us through Sunday, plus a few staples I always like to have on hand: . I spend $89.31 at Aldi while Andy spends $18.90 at Wegmans. We will have to stop at H Mart another night this week for a few things I need for a recipe I plan to make Saturday. 

Credit: JELL-O: Kraft Heinz; Design: The Kitchn

Most of the Wegmans tab goes to the Jell-O. We go through a LOT of it in a week since it’s one of the only desserts we can eat on my specific keto plan, which does not allow any nuts (and nut flours are the basis for most keto desserts). I also count regular carbs, not net carbs, so keto snacks and desserts sold at most stores and online are far out of my range. I limit myself to no more than 10 carbs per meal, and no more than 20 carbs a day. 

Credit: Courtesy of Jean

Dinner and meal prep: We work on a cook-once, eat-twice system, so I cook every other day and we eat leftovers between. For lunches Andy eats cold cuts and I usually meal prep something for myself, which I normally would do on Sundays but we’re behind this week. I also usually make an egg casserole for Andy’s breakfasts whenever he runs out of the last one I made. Being out of town over the weekend means I need to make three meals in one night but it’s fine — in our house whoever doesn’t cook does the dishes!

I make a recipe from Bon Appetit‘s Carla Lalli Music’s cookbook, Where Cooking Begins. She has a recipe for how to make a whole chicken in about 30 minutes by spatchcocking it and putting a Dutch oven or cast iron skillet on top of it to weigh it down. I love this recipe, I’ve never had chicken with crispier skin. I use the whole chicken and rub it with a mix of fennel and red chili flakes I have in my spice cabinet. I roast Brussels sprouts tossed in oil, salt and pepper to go along with it. 

While the chicken is in the oven I start on my lunches for the week: Kitchn’s recipe for Instant Pot Barbacoa. To keep it keto I reduce the amount of garlic and onion and serve it with avocado, sour cream and cheese, rather than a tortilla and pickled onions. (Aldi didn’t have brisket so I got chuck round roast instead.) I pop the meat plus red onion, garlic, chipotle chiles in adobo, cilantro, lime juice, apple cider vinegar from my cupboard and the bone broth into my beloved Instant Pot and put that on for an hour. I freeze the extra chipotle chiles. 

I then move on to Andy’s breakfast casserole, which is a recipe that changes according to my mood and the available meat and produce. I use 18 eggs, half a block of cheddar cheese, an onion, two bell peppers, and the bulk sausage to make eight servings. I stir it all together and pop it in the oven, and then sit down for the first time in three hours to eat some orange sugar-free Jell-O and watch Love It or List It.

Day 2: Tuesday

Breakfast: We’re a bit more on schedule today, getting up closer to 6:00 a.m. I make slightly less coffee for myself and Andy heats up a serving of the egg casserole that I made last night. I pack up one serving of the barbacoa plus a tiny Tupperware of sour cream and an avocado for my lunch. I forgot to shred cheese last night (on keto we never buy shredded cheese anymore, because most brands add potato starch to it to keep it from clumping) and I am not in the mood to dirty another dish this morning, so I will do without at lunch. Andy makes his keto lunch: ham and provolone rolls. No side. He is simple. 

Not enough coffee: I definitely should have packed my 20-ounce Thermos instead of my 16 ounce, because at 10:30 I need more coffee. I hit up the free office Keurig to fill my thermos again while contemplating buying an extra Aeropress to keep at the office. 

Credit: Courtesy of Jean

Lunch: I microwave my barbacoa and add sour cream. I cut up my avocado with a butter knife and get it all over my desk rather than the Tupperware. It’s not the prettiest lunch but it hits the spot. 

Dinner: I continue to enjoy the fruits of yesterday’s labor, heating up my chicken and Brussels sprouts leftovers in the oven for our dinner. I top the Brussels with a few spoonfuls of Parmesan cheese that we have in the fridge to give the repeat meal a bit of a flavor boost.

Dessert: I’m still a bit hungry after dinner and a Jell-O cup, so I decide on a whim to make some keto cheesecake, one of my very few dessert options. I use a recipe from one of my keto cookbooks, and make a batch of cupcake-size cheesecakes, omitting the almond flour crust. I use the block of cream cheese I bought this week, plus one leftover in the fridge, three eggs, erythritol sweetener I keep on hand that I order from Amazon, vanilla extract, and lemon extract from my spice cupboard. I eat a cup just a little warm and don’t mind at all, saving the rest for later in the week. Andy gets home after me and eats the same leftovers and a few cheesecake cups, too. 

Day 3: Wednesday

Breakfast: Just coffee again! I packed it in my giant Thermos to make up for yesterday’s lack of caffeine. Andy has his egg casserole and a cup of coffee. 

Lunch: Andy takes his usual rolls, I continue to eat my barbacoa. 

Credit: Courtesy of Jean

Dinner: I make a keto-friendly version of bangers and mash, using cauliflower mash instead of mashed potatoes. My favorite cauliflower mash recipe is from a blog called All Day I Dream About Food. The secret is adding a couple tablespoons of a good white, sharp cheddar to the mix. It adds an umami flavor that makes the mash taste inexplicably like potatoes. Butter, heavy cream (left in my fridge from last week), salt and pepper also go in it.  

I top the finished product with some chopped parsley from my herb garden. I started growing my own herbs over the summer, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It saves money and prevents me from wasting herbs I don’t use. They’re currently inside since it’s winter and they’re not 100% thriving, so I trim delicately. Right now I have rosemary, basil, oregano, thyme, and parsley. Next summer I plan to add sage, mint and chives. 

Dessert: I have another dessert consisting of a Jell-O cup and a cheesecake cup, which Andy mirrors. 

Day 4: Thursday

Breakfast: I’m working from home Thursday and Friday this week, and get indulgent with my coffee. We have a Nespresso machine in addition to our Aeropress, so I make an Americano with an espresso pod and hot water. 

Credit: Courtesy of Jean

Lunch: Since I’m home, I can vary my lunch a little more with pantry ingredients. I decide to top my barbacoa with some of the shredded cheddar leftover from Andy’s breakfast casserole and the bangers and mash. I add avocado and sour cream, as I have been doing, but also top it with a little Cholula hot sauce from my fridge. I also make another Americano with a smidge of frothed heavy cream. I got a cheap milk frother for Christmas from my sister and it makes me feel incredibly indulgent every time I use it. 

Dinner: It’s leftovers night again (which is good because I am starving at 5:00 p.m. for some reason). I eat before Andy gets home. I have my nightly Jell-O while he eats to make it seem like we’re eating together. After, Andy finishes the rest of the cheesecake. 

Day 5: Friday 

Breakfast: I love a work from home day! I want Nespresso but we’re almost out of pods and have lots of ground coffee left (we order ground coffee from Amazon’s Subscribe and Save service, which is much cheaper than buying the brand I like at Wegmans). I make a big thermos of Aeropress. 

Credit: Courtesy of Jean

Lunch: I still have barbacoa left but I decide to save that for the weekend and enjoy the fact that I have a light work from home day. I make breakfast for lunch, a common practice for me since I started intermittent fasting. I may not eat breakfast anymore but I do love breakfast foods. I make scrambled eggs topped with some of the leftover shredded cheddar and dried chives (one of my favorite things to keep in the spice cupboard) and some of the frozen sausages we got from Wegmans.

A lot of people on keto keep bacon around as a zero-carb snack, but I have always preferred sausage at breakfast. We splurge on pre-cooked frozen sausage patties (we prefer zero-carbs-per-patty Smithfield but they were out this week, so we went with half-a-carb-per-patty Banquet) so I have something easy and non-perishable at all times to eat. One of the biggest difficulties with going keto has been finding easy, pre-made things to keep around for busy days and emergencies. Making everything from scratch is cost-effective and delicious, but there are days when we just don’t have the time. 

Decaf break: I want more coffee after lunch and make an Aeropress cup of decaf, since I try to limit my caffeine intake after noon. 

Dinner: It’s our four-year dating anniversary, which Andy wants to celebrate one last time before we hit our first wedding anniversary later this year. We budget about two meals out a month (separate from our $150/week grocery budget) and haven’t been out this month, so we decide to walk to a bar down the street for a chill date night. Andy gets fried chicken sliders and a burger he definitely doesn’t finish and I do a bunless burger with a side Caesar salad. 

Day 6 : Saturday 

Breakfast: Did I mention I drink a lot of coffee? I have a cup at home before meeting a friend at 11 a.m. for a coffee date, where I suck down two Americanos. My friend pays and I promise to get her next time. By the time I get back home I am practically vibrating. Since it’s the weekend and he has more time, Andy makes his own breakfast of eggs and sausage, saving the remaining egg casserole for next week. 

H Mart trip: On the way home from my coffee date I stop by H Mart, which is one of my favorite places to shop. It has every Asian specialty item you could possibly cook with, plus a huge and incredibly affordable produce section. I need a stalk of lemongrass for the dinner I have planned tonight, plus red curry paste. We also ran out of eggs after Andy’s breakfast, so I grab a dozen here, even though they’re cheaper at Aldi. I spend $3.18

Credit: Food Photo: Shutterstock; Design: The Kitchn

Lunch: I am not wildly hungry, so I snack on some of the string cheese I bought this week and haven’t touched yet. Andy has a serving of my barbacoa with just cheddar cheese on top. 

Dinner: I like to make ambitious dinners on the weekends. I make Coconut Curry Braised Chicken Thighs from Bon Appetit that is basically keto without having to make many adjustments (as usual, I reduce the garlic). I use the chicken legs I got from Aldi, the can of coconut milk, red curry paste packet, lemongrass stalk, garlic and a piece of ginger. (I always keep some frozen— a budget tip I got from a Kitchn grocery diary!). The downside of Aldi meat is sometimes it requires some butchering at home. The store’s whole chicken legs have backbone attached, so I have to remove it with my chicken shears. I save the four pieces of backbone in a bag in the freezer for stock in the future. 

I make cauliflower fried rice while the chicken is in the oven. Many recipes for it include peas or carrots, which are both on my personal do-not-eat list for keto, so my version only includes cauliflower (I use a whole head and rice it in my food processor), chopped scallions, eggs, soy sauce, coconut oil and sesame oil. It’s one of my favorite keto dishes, especially once I learned the key was adding an extra egg for more flavor. I top the cauliflower with chicken legs and sauce, and sprinkle a bit of the leftover cilantro from my barbacoa recipe on top, plus a squeeze of lime juice. 

Credit: Courtesy of Jean

Dessert: Andy and I indulge in a few cups of Jell-O each while watching The Office.

Day 7: Sunday

Breakfast: I make Andy fried eggs, since he hasn’t quite mastered a good over-easy egg yet. I drink coffee while meal planning for the coming week. 

Lunch: I finish off my barbacoa with everything I added on Thursday, plus some of the leftover cilantro and a lime wedge. Andy eats his leftovers from our date night. 

Weekly shopping: We make our usually-scheduled trip to Aldi and H Mart, but everything we buy is for the coming week. 

Credit: Courtesy of Jean

Super Bowl snacks: It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and we’re not hosting or going to a party, but I want to make watching it together at home more festive. I make a quick guacamole with the remaining avocados from my barbacoa lunches, plus an onion, the remaining cilantro, a lime, salt, and red pepper flakes from my spice cupboard. It’s not my best (I didn’t have red onion or a jalapeño on hand) but it’s still delicious. I cut up the last bell pepper we have and use that to dip in the guac. Sometimes, I just eat it with a spoon.

Dinner: We eat the leftover chicken curry at the coffee table while rooting for the Chiefs with a side of guacamole. Andy drinks a few beers from a 12-pack he got for Christmas from his uncle and I drink two White Claw hard seltzers leftover from our Christmas party (just two carbs each). We both pass out after the game. 

Credit: The Kitchn

1. How did you set your food budget?

Before I went keto, our budget was $100 a week, based on USDA guidelines. We had to expand it when cheap staples like rice, beans, potatoes and pasta were eliminated from our diet and we had to add so much more meat and dairy to compensate. We took the money from our eating out budget, which worked out easily, since eating out is so hard for me now we rarely do it. 

2. What are the kitchen ingredients you can’t live without?

We buy eggs, cream cheese, and heavy cream nearly every week. We have chicken at least once a week, if not two or three times when I’m trying to keep the grocery total down.

3. What’s the budget recipe you always rely on?

Roasted chicken thighs and broccoli at 425 degrees. Broccoli for 25 minutes, chicken for 45. Any combination of spices (or just salt and pepper) will do. 

At Kitchn we believe setting a food budget for you and your family is an essential part in getting your financial life in order. Don’t know where to start? We have a guide for that. Want to share your Grocery Diary with Kitchn? See how here.